Tom Bower

How the BBC can save itself

John Birt working in the offices of London Weekend Television in 1975. (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

All those esteemed generals of hindsight screeching ‘more governance’ as the cure to BBC’s cover-up of the Martin Bashir’s dishonesty 25 years ago share with Lord Dyson a misunderstanding about the essential cause of the Panorama catastrophe and all the ensuing BBC scandals including those involving Jimmy Savile, Cliff Richard and Alistair McAlpine. Namely, ‘Birtism’.

Under John Birt, the BBC’s director general from 1992 to 1999, an ever-increasing number of new structures, controls and governance were imposed upon the BBC’s creative talents to suppress and remove risk. In the wake of Panorama’s humiliating defeat in a libel action by Neil Hamilton, a Tory MP, about a programme in 1984 called ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendency’, Panorama producers were put under the cosh to prevent further embarrassments. Those new, top heavy controls were in place in 1996 when the cover-up of Bashir’s deceit was executed.

Birt’s system was described by his critics as Stalinism. Experienced gumshoe journalists were controlled by ambitious bureaucratic desk-journalists like Tony Hall and Anne Sloman, united in their contempt for ‘troublemakers’. Safety first supremos like Hall distrusted maverick journalists who were galvanised by anti-Establishment scepticism and risk-taking. In parallel, Hall and his ilk failed to understand their own weaknesses. Namely, they lacked journalistic scepticism to wilfully overturn their own pre-conceptions to discover the truth.

Across all the departments of the Corporation, creative risk-taking producers have been replaced by layers of safe, box-ticking, diversity-conscious placemen and women who have rarely produced an outstanding programme

In the Birtist world, journalists could only leave the BBC’s premises after their controllers had commandeered the facts and dictated the story to be broadcast. According to Birt’s ‘Mission to Explain’, the facts were fashioned to suit the narrative approved by in-house editors. The new chiefs had no experience of searching through humanity’s gutters for original stories and the truth.

Surprisingly, Dyson accepted without scepticism Lord Birt’s assertion that he had unquestioningly accepted the inaccuracies which Hall peddled about Bashir and the forgeries.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in